By Father John Bayer, O. Cist.
Special to The Texas Catholic
My impression is that many people today think we live in unprecedented and negative times. They feel afraid as they watch ideologies make bold moves for economic and political power.
In a certain basic sense, it is hard for me to agree that our times are unprecedented. The Church must struggle in every age, and we just don’t have that divine vision which would allow us to compare, definitively or apocalyptically, our own age with any other. On the other hand, I can easily understand the feeling that things are urgent; after all, these are our times, and so we are, quite rightly, sensitive to their dramatic character.
What these feelings suggest is that we need — as the Church in every age needs — true prophets. We need Christians who have the sober and cheerful strength to accept the difficult task of discerning God’s will in ‘the signs of the times’ — and who are then ready to preach it boldly and peacefully. False prophets try to ignore the exciting, sanctifying challenges of our times. In the words of Jeremiah, they try to heal “the wound” of God’s people lightly by “saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jer 8:10-11). By contrast, true prophets don’t ignore injustice, nor do they spare themselves the hard work of conversion and the often uncomfortable — but ultimately always joyful — task of letting God work through them for the salvation of the world.
One Evangelical author who sees our times dramatically is Eric Metaxas, who recently wrote “Letter to the American Church.” He writes to encourage Christians to decry the evils that they see today — or the ones that they should see if their eyes were open, lest our civilization resist evil too slowly and consequently at terrible cost. Writing chiefly to Evangelicals, he is worried that Christians are un-willing to embrace their prophetic role in the world. In his experience, many Christians are bothered by their pastors’ apparent inability to perceive or to acknowledge what is happening: “most people in the pews whom these pastors purport to lead know that things are not as they were even a few years ago. They are looking to their pastoral leaders to acknowledge this, to help them understand what is happening and to lead them in standing against it” (Letter to the American Church, 36).
When he gets specific, Metaxas seems most alarmed by ideological attacks on human dignity, such as abortion and euthanasia, and by the imposition of transgenderism and homosexual activity as cultural values. Indeed, it does seem, at least to those who know where to look (in areas like medicine, entertainment, law, and education), that these ideologies are becoming bolder and grabbing for power. But there are many other issues we should mention, since the social teaching of the Church is so vast, and we are blessed as Catholics to have popes over the last 150 years, from Leo XIII to Pope Francis, who spoke so boldly about human dignity, family, economy, environment, and many other prophetic topics. As a Protestant, Metaxas could be encouraged, I think, in his search for prophets by looking to the Church’s Magisterium. Indeed, I don’t think there can be any doubt — at least for those who read the catechism – about where the Church stands on the principles underlying today’s issues. On the other hand, admittedly, the fullness of this social teaching does not always arrive to the faithful through our preachers, catechists, and families. In other words, the Church (starting with myself) still has great work to do, both to study and to teach more effectively. And that could make Metaxas’s book a helpful challenge also for Catholics.
Before closing, I want to make two more points. First, if we want to be true prophets (and as baptized Catholics, we certainly should), then we should recognize that we must do more than say hard truths. As Christians, we must be wiser than those who simply stoke indignation, for we must always have charity as our aim rather than our own self-image as proud truth-tellers. This means we will want to attract everyone actually to love the truth and to foster in ourselves the humility that becomes those who know that we all have ways to grow. Second, we must always frame our society’s challenges in the light of faith. If we can do that, we will ultimately succeed, because then our prophetic mission will be a true collaboration with God. Moreover, we will never be reduced to fear. On the contrary, we will see how exciting it is to be Catholic today, and how much meaningful work there is for us, as we strive simply to spread the Gospel and grow in love with Jesus, letting Him work through us for the salvation of the world.
Father John Bayer, O. Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving.